The bustling corner of 19th and Agate is home to some of Eugene’s most beloved institutions: Agate Alley’s Thursday night drink wheel, Prince Pückler’s mint chip that then-Sen. Barack Obama popularized in 2008 and Hey, Neighbor! Pizza House’s corgis.
Santo de la Torta will join that august company when it opens. Chef Sara Willis — a familiar name for those who remember the popular downtown spot Red Agave that was open 2001 to 2012 — is opening the restaurant with a menu focused on Mexican-influenced sandwiches and tortas while providing quick service. Willis is hoping to open the restaurant as soon as April 20 or May 1.
“This is like home,” Willis says of the restaurant’s 19th and Agate location. “I’ve been coming to Prince Pücklers since I was a small kid.”
The menu’s Mexican influence runs from adding jalapeños to egg salad sandwiches to serving the hangover-friendly pork pozole on the weekend. “I’m working through on paper right now how to turn traditional sandwiches and give it Mexican flair,” she says. “For BLT, I’ll put roasted poblanos on it and a queso sauce to dip it in.
Tortas differ from American sandwiches in many ways, but most people will notice the size of the bread. Rather than flat, sliced bread, tortas are fluffy buns filled with ingredients from refried beans to piles of meat.
Willis says the tortas on her menu are based on what she’s eaten in Mexico. Before she moved back to Eugene to run Red Agave, she lived in Mexico for 15 years, where she ran two restaurants in southern Baja, Mexico.
One torta that she’s excited about is a chile relleno bombazo, which includes roasted poblano peppers stuffed with cheese and potato, fried and topped with salsa with an option to add chorizo from Long’s Meats. “A bombazo is a traditional Mexican sandwich that has chorizo and potato,” she says.
Another torta that her restaurant will offer is called the Mexican mullet, which is refried beans and cheese over a torta bun with pico de gallo and avocado served on top. It’s inspired by the mollete open-faced sandwich. “It’s really common to eat for breakfast,” she says.
Willis says that she plans on having a weekday and weekend menu. The weekday menu will focus on the faster turnaround sandwiches, and the weekend one will include dishes, such as the hangover-friendly pork pozole, and lobster rolls, a dish that she says has been requested by popular demand.
In addition to serving food, Willis says she hopes to have hard alcohol, but not a full bar, operated in a manner that fits the fast service model. She plans to sell shots of liquor, margaritas and alcoholic slushies. “You could buy a bottle of mineral water if you want and make yourself a vodka tonic,” she says.
The storefront where Santo de la Torta is located has a small footprint, but Willis says it’ll have seating for about 15 people. She wants the restaurant to be a place where you can purchase grab-and-go food. It’ll make food to order, but she says there will also be some pre-made salads and sandwiches.
And one way that Willis plans to expedite food is by cooking it through a TurboChef multi-oven appliance, used by restaurants like Starbucks to heat pre-made sandwiches. Willis says a friend of hers in Mexico recommended she buy the oven for use in her restaurant. “But if you put good food in there versus shitty food, good food comes out,” she says. “You don’t have a microwave effect, the bread isn’t soggy — it’s crispy — and the meat’s hot.”
Willis acknowledges that she’s focusing on cooking food faster while other restaurants are working on fine dining. “I don’t care if people call me basic,” she says. “I’m totally fine with that. I make basic, good, comfortable food.”
Santo de la Torta is at 1607 E. 19th Avenue. For more information, visit SantoTorta.com (still under construction). While running Santo de la Torta, Willis will also have a food truck called Little Agave that will serve tacos and burritos at Erik Verdouw Physical Therapy’s office, 3469 Hilyard Street.